A quick look at the "games behind" column in the standings tells the story about the compelling nature of the chase for the playoffs in the Western Conference. As does watching any of the West's top nine teams with any regularity.
The standings don't exactly tell the same tale in the East. All three divisions are all but wrapped up. Only six current playoff teams have winning records, and the sixth is just a game over the .500 mark. The basketball is slower and generally considered to be of lower quality than that played by the counterparts out West.
But with all that said, the playoffs truly are a second season, a shot at redemption for some and a shot to confirm what the regular season seems to demonstrate for others. One way or the other, there is a race of sorts going on back in the East. So while the beloved Celts close in on clinching the top seed, we provide without further ado five reasons to stay interested in the race (lame trot?) to the postseason in the Eastern Conference:
- The Washington Wizards: Every e-mail from my highly respected colleagues over at We Rite Goode bears the same bad news about the lukewarm local interest in this team, and I just don't get it. How fans in DC aren't getting worked up over this team is beyond me. The Wiz have played a significant portion of this season without their top two players, were picked by many to fall out of the playoffs completely after the injury to Caron Butler and have since done anything but. They now sit just two games back of the Cavs for home-court advantage in the first round, which could loom large given Cleveland's 25-11 home record and 16-22 road mark. The Wiz have a bizarre cast of characters. They love to chuck up threes and on the right nights hit them like nobody's business. Nick Young is really fun to watch. DeShawn Stevenson has an awesome goatee, plays tough defense and is getting his stroke back from deep. Oh, quick, name the league's four statistically qualified players averaging 20 points and 10 boards this season: Dwight Howard, Carlos Boozer, Al Jefferson and -- you guessed it -- Antawn Jamison. Talk about being the forgotten man. And the Wizards could be on the verge of getting the Hibachi back sooner rather than later. If the locals aren't going to jump on the paying-attention-to-the-Wiz wagon, then perhaps it's going to be on the rest of us -- except for the rooting part, of course.
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- The battle for sixth. Yeah, yeah, we know your story, Orlando. The Magic have spent a vast portion of the season making a point of the supposed lack of respect afforded them by the media this season. But here's the thing: There is a major difference between the Pistons and Magic, with that difference being that the Pistons are still (at least for this year) the much better basketball team. We would be kidding ourselves to think that the teams currently slotted in the sixth and seventh spots aren't cognizant of and concerned about this, with the Pistons and Magic getting closer and closer to being locked in at the two and three respectively. As it happens, those lower teams happen to be separated by a half-game. If the Sixers can get around the Raps and into that sixth spot, the East's most improbable playoff story could very legitimately be looking at giving itself a fighting chance to make an appearance in the second round. And the once-promising Raps will likely be packing it in early for the second straight year if they run up against Detroit.
- Vince Carter's war against, well, everyone. Columbia Missourian reporter, former Money from the Parking Lot writer and good friend Bill 'Willy Po' Powell wondered at the time of the Jason Kidd trade whether or not we would see a feeling-slighted VC attempt to prove the doubters (and Kidd's harsh words about the organization) wrong by dragging this team on his back to the playoffs, as he was once known to do in Toronto. While we weren't sure about this at the outset after the deal, recent occurrences might add some credence to Bill's theory. In his last nine games, Carter has scored below 27 points exactly three times, going for 25, 22 and 22 in those three contests. He also has four 30-plus-point games and an average of 28.7 points per game on that span. He is doing all this while taking the absurd figure of nearly 21 shots per outing from the field. While we still can't figure out the enigmatic swingman (nor do we know if he is really 'motivated' or not), the man is certainly coming to score as of late (however ineffectively), and on some nights, he has put on quite a show in doing so. Whether or not he and Devin Harris will help the Nets sell any non-refundable playoff tickets is anyone's guess, as they sit two and a half games out of the eighth spot with eight to play.
- The very real possibility of a return to the playoffs for the Hawks. This would be their first trip to the postseason in the new millennium. Always fun to see those long-time droughts end. Especially when the team in question has a player of the caliber and character of Al Horford, who could otherwise be well on his way to playing in fewer nationally televised games in his career than he did at Florida last season. Here's just hoping the Hawks don't christen their possible return to the playoffs with quite the same excitement the Warriors did in ending a similar drought last season.
- The increasing likelihood of a lack of Bullishness. Given that they aren't all the way out of the picture yet, we don't want to count our chickens while they have yet to hatch, but what a story this will be. Remember how this Hicag team was going to be both the class of the Central Division and the team likely to scare the Celtics the most come playoff time? My recollection of my conceptualization of the talented young Bulls team at the outset of the season tells me that I was not looking forward to the Celts running up against the Bulls but thankful that it likely wouldn't be able to happen until the conference finals. Now, barring complete collapses for the three teams ahead of the Bulls for eighth (they are four games out), it won't be able to happen until 2009. Thankfully.